Saturday, May 5, 2018

Finn's Trouble with Teacher Strikes

Chester "Checker" Finn is the former honcho of the Fordham Institute, but he still crops up from time to time to express his thoughts about one issue or another. Last week he decided to weigh in on the teacher strikes around the country. Like many conservatives, he's having trouble finding exactly the right notes to hit when opposing these work stoppages. Let me humbly disagree.

Finn starts out by acknowledging that there are reasons to sympathize with striking teachers:

They’re not very well paid, inflation is creeping up, a lot of classrooms are crowded with kids and lacking in textbooks and supplies, and a number of state and local budgets for school operations are extremely tight and sometimes declining.

All true, and all carefully sidestepping the fact that these are not things that just kind of happened somehow, but are the results of deliberate choices deliberately made by legislators in the affected states. But Finn does note that in addition to "wearing red, shutting down schools, and marching around," teachers have been showing their dissatisfaction by walking off the job one at a time.

But having acknowledged all of these things, Finn would like us to keep four other points in mind as we understand why those lousy teachers should be opposed how to balance these nuanced issues.

First,  "though state and local budgets in some places are tight because tight-fingered policymakers have cut taxes and slashed spending, in other places there’s just not as much revenue as was expected." He blames that on slow recovery, low growth and wealthy people running away to other states. That last one begs for some actual support-- is that really happening, really? The other two are a nicer way of observing that the expectations that weren't met are the same old magical baloney of trickle down economics. Kansas is just the most spectacular example of how the economic fantasy of austerity for the poor and tax cuts for the wealthy has failed. "Not as much revenue as was expected" is not an indictment of economic growth-- it's an indictment of state leaders whose powers of expectation were ruined by belief in voodoo economics. In short, the "low growth" is not something that "just happened" (just as the "great recession" was not a mysterious act of God and nature) but the direct result of bad policies by bad legislators who didn't do their damned jobs. This is like a head of a household spending the family budget on magic beans and then shrugging and saying, "Well, you know, some times things just don't work out. What are you going to do?"

Second, "U.S. school systems continue to use available dollars to hire more teachers rather than paying more generous salaries to the teachers they’ve already got—which also means hiring more teachers rather than better teachers."

On this point, Finn overlooks the obvious. More teachers = smaller classes. Smaller classes = more effective work by the teachers you've already got. The fantasy that teachers can be objectively ranked as if teacher quality exists in a vacuum is also a fantasy. Finn does note that two states where student population has grown faster than the employed teacher workforce are Oklahoma and Arizona. He bemoans the fact that Chicago teachers seem unlikely to move to Houston, but he blames it on tenure, benefits and pensions instead of, say, the fact that Houston offers little or no incentive for anyone to move there to teach.

Third is the same old teacher shaming. Teachers don't get enough respect, but they'd get more if they didn't support certain political and policy actions. Since they insist in on things like due process for firing and pay scales, well, they just lose the respect of the public. This would be a good place for Finn to insert some sort of evidence that in states where teachers don't have tenure or collective bargaining rights, they are much more respected, but oddly enough, no such evidence is offered. Finn also chides unions for protecting their weakest members, which is like criticizing lawyers for allowing defense attorneys to exist. Either you have due process or you don't, and if you want to be able to say, "Look, this guy stinks so much we should just fire him without any due process," then you are arguing that there should be no due process. Period.

Most of all, Finn wants us to pay teachers based on how excellent they are (and what they teach-- apparently Finn thinks phys ed teachers are overpaid), even though we do not have any method of effectively determining who's great and who's not. Finn refers to test results which A) are a lousy way to measure teacher awesomeness and B) currently only measure math and reading (and in some places, science). But hey-- if we magically implemented this system we don't know how to implement, people would respect teachers more.

Fourth-- well, let's go really old school. Teachers work short days and get summers off, so they don't deserve more pay. It's sad that some teachers take extra jobs, admits Finn, but he blames the school year and work day for being too short. You can pick your favorite counter-argument to this one. Compare the actual hours and days and find that teachers don't work that much less. Compare teacher wages to other workers who don't put in a full year, like pro basketball stars. Compute what you would have to pay teachers if you paid them babysitter wages (spoiler alert: a ton). Observe that teachers are frickin' professionals and not hourly workers. Or, for the free market conservatives, note that the going rate for a thing, whether it's a commodity, a manufactured good, or skilled labor, is set by the invisible hand, and not what you feel like paying. If you think the work is so short and easy, come do it yourself.

So Finn's argument against the strikes range from the creatively misguided to old-school insulting. He has, of course, completely ignored the part of this that is flummoxing many conservatives-- the strikes are not simply about teacher wages but about teaching conditions. When you say teachers should suck it up and teach classes of forty kids, you are saying that parents should be happy to put their kids in forty-student classes. When you argue that teachers should stop whining about moldy rooms, you are saying that students should gladly sit in those rooms as well. When you argue that teachers should not get fussy about forty-year-old textbooks, you are saying that students should be happy with those books as well. Teachers work conditions really are student learning conditions, and when those conditions have been deliberately degraded by people who want to save a buck or leaders who want to drive more families into charter schools-- in short, when those lousy conditions are the result of deliberate bad choices made by legislators, then all the teacher shaming in the world isn't really going to help.

Finn says that if we want to ameliorate these conditions, "a great many things need to change in very big ways." He's correct, but those many things are less about teachers being uppity and more about state leaders actually committing to support public education.


  1. Thank you for pointing out the invisible obvious. It is kind of like the keys that hide in plain sight.

  2. This paragon of obtusity (is that a word? It is now LOL) is also now on my State Board of Education, cheering on "school choice" with his pal Andy Smarick. They were appointed by a governor who campaigned in part on an anti-Common Core platform (and a lot of parents are really cheesed off that we still have it, and that we're still in the PARCC Consortium after all the cool kids have already left it. @.@) and who ironically effectively shortened the school year (at least for kids) by mandating a post-Labor Day start and a last day no later than June 15th (with very little wiggle room for snow days).

    Oh, and we're a Right to Work state.

    Go figure.

    1. Just and FYI if you don't already know. 2019 will be the last year for PARCC according to the Board of Public Works meeting. They are looking to use a computer adaptive test that will be MD developed and the vendor they are talking about is New Meridian. I don't quite know the ins and outs, but Meridian manages PARCC? Also, Pearson is moving into a shiny new building in Columbia, MD. I think we will still have PARCC and Common Chore, but they are trying to fool the public into thinking we will be done with this mess. Quite frankly, I don't know who I will vote for for the Gov position. Alec Ross seems" reasonable" and his wife is a teacher, but he is very tech oriented and I believe he will send us deeper into the tech nightmare of Baltimore County (which is a nightmare!). Jealous says a lot but doesn't have a plan, KK of Balto Co is out. I don't much about the other ones. Hogan has got to go IMHO....he lied about getting rid of CC and PARCC and he appoints bozos to the Board at MSDE. It is a miserable mess for education here in MD. We will be paying for private HS for my son and my daughter will finish 2 more years of public HS in HoCo since her mandated state grad requirements have been met.

    2. Ew. Just....Ew, to all of it.

      Can 2019 also be the last year for Hogan? And Finn? And Smarick? Hell, let's make it 2018!

      Because I'm THIIIIIIS close to homeschooling my kids the 2nd half of their senior years and graduating them my damn self.

  3. Sat in a room with Finn and about 30 other teachers in 1993 and listened to his utopia of a charter school he was going to have. Under questioning he admitted that the reason his would work is because he would selectively educate the better students and the rest would be educated elsewhere (public schools). He was wrong then and he has continued to be wrong about almost everything else (I say almost because I’m guessing there had to be something he guessed right about and I just don’t know about it.) Why is someone like this listened to and given credibility given his track record?

  4. The states where teachers are walking out have cut taxes and cut school funding. The Republicans took control of the legislature in NC. They cut taxes and cut school funding. The funds for new textbooks just about dried up. The schools here have not had new textbooks for about 10 years. My son's physics book is held together with duct tape. Ridiculous. I totally support the teacher walkout scheduled for May 16 in North Carolina.